Ikea, the Swedish furniture giant, has issued a public apology for using prison labor to make some of its products in the 1970s and 1980s. East Germans imprisoned for their political beliefs were forced to make some of the company’s trademark chairs and other goods and — if they did not meet product quotas in excess of what workers “on the outside” did — could be placed in an isolation cell, for ten days at a time. Former prisoners recalled that they saw boxes with Ikea’s name on them and that their overseers mentioned the company by name.
Alexander Arnold, who served an 11-month sentence for “distributing anti-communist propaganda” (flyers with poetry by Bertolt Brecht and Hermann Hesse), recalled such details at a news conference last Friday in Berlin at which a “squirming Peter Betzel” — the chief of Ikea in Germany — said that “It is not and never was acceptable to Ikea that it should be selling products made by political prisoners and I would like to express my deepest regret for this to the victims and their families.” Ikea says that it will donate funds to study forced labor in the former East Germany (GDR).
Using Forced Labor in East Germany Was a “Well-Known” Practice
It is now public knowledge that the Scandinavian purveyor of cheap, often partially assembled, bookshelves and futon frames, profited from the forced labor of Europeans incarcerated by the Stasi, the secret police, for their political beliefs — that is, for opposing a Soviet-backed Communist government after the post-war division of Germany. Managers knew of the practice of using slave labor; some even visited production sites in the GDR, under the careful watch of government officials.
Use of the forced labor of prisoners in factories in East Germany was indeed “well-known at the time,” as Jochen Staadt, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, tells the New York Times. Other Western nations are at least somewhat complicit, with West Germany actually encouraging that goods be made in East Germany to lower the latter’s debt. As costs were lower in the east, companies were not uneager to move production there.
Ikea does have some questions to answer. The company commissioned auditing firm Ernst & Young to research and write the report. Investigators examined some 20,000 pages of internal Ikea records as well as 80,000 pages of documents from state and federal archives. About 90 people, including current and former Ikea employees and witnesses from East Germany, were interviewed. But from all this, the company only produced a four-page summary of the results due to “privacy concerns.” Members of victims’ groups emphasized that independent academic experts, who have spent years studying dictatorships, would have been a more experienced, and objective, choice to conduct the inquiry.
What Might Be Going On In Ikea Factories Now?
Ikea’s own official code of conduct states that it has “zero tolerance for child and forced labor,” Media Bistro points out. Another former prisoner, Anita Gossler — who was not only imprisoned and made to sew sheets, aprons and tablecloths sold in West Germany, but also had her three-month-old baby taken from her — asked Ikea’s Betzel, “How can you guarantee that in a place like China you really know what’s going on in the factories?”
Ikea’s pressboard tables, chairs and more once filled our rooms. We have few pieces left now; while not the flimsiest, they lacked a certain solidity. We shrugged this off, figuring (like how many Ikea customers?) that it was not a big deal to procure another piece, since Ikea’s items were “so cheap.” The recent revelations show why, at least for some products, Ikea could charge so little.
It has been a long time since we roamed the overstuffed aisles of Ikea and I’ve no plans of doing so again.
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